Sharon invites Labor Party into coalition
Updated: 2004-12-10 20:22
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday invited the opposition Labor
Party into the government, officials said, seeking to shore up his coalition as
Israel's plans to pull out of the Gaza Strip move into high gear.
The move came a day after Sharon easily won approval from his Likud Party
to begin negotiations to bring its traditional rival into the government.
|Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attends a session of the
Israeli parliament in Jerusalem December 8, 2004. Sharon marshalled
support for Thursday's Likud party vote to bring the Labor Party into a
government that would block snap elections and pave the way for a Gaza
withdrawal next year.[Reuters]|
The Likud vote gave Sharon an important political victory as he pushes
forward with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank
settlements in mid-2005. A government with the dovish Labor Party, along with
upcoming Palestinian presidential elections, also could help restart
long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a new sign of progress Friday, Israeli security officials said the
army is prepared to turn over security responsibilities in northern Gaza to the
Palestinians well ahead of the withdrawal.
Labor leader Shimon Peres said Sharon called him early Friday to invite
his party into coalition negotiations. Peres praised the Likud's decision to
pursue unity talks and said his party would meet Saturday night to authorize him
to open talks.
"I hope we should be able to move ahead in the direction of peace," he
said. "It's not simple. It's not easy, but it is promising and the right step."
A senior government official said Sharon also invited two religious
parties to open coalition talks. The official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said negotiations with all parties would begin early next week, with
the goal of quickly reaching a new coalition arrangement.
Hard-line opposition to the Gaza withdrawal plan and a falling out with
the secular-rights Shinui Party, a key coalition partner, have left Sharon with
a tattered minority in the 120-member parliament. With Labor's support, Sharon
will regain a majority that appears poised to be able to carry out the
Much of the opposition to the withdrawal has come from within the Likud,
which made Thursday's vote so critical for Sharon. Last May, the Likud rank and
file overwhelmingly voted against the withdrawal plan in a party referendum.
Sharon ignored the vote and pressed ahead.
Despite continued misgivings over the Gaza plan, the party's Central
Committee voted 62 percent to 38 percent Thursday in favor of talking to Labor,
preferring that alliance to the alternative of heading to early elections.
For decades, Sharon was the leading proponent of building settlements in
the West Bank and Gaza, and his Likud hotly opposed conceding any land to the
Palestinians. Over the past year, however, Sharon changed his policy.
Sharon says the Gaza settlements, with 8,200 Jews living among more than
a million Palestinians, are untenable and must be removed.
He also believes the withdrawal will give Israel a better chance to
retain its main settlement blocs in the West Bank, and says his plan will head
off international peace efforts unfavorable to Israel.
Labor's inclusion in the government would come at a critical time.
Parliament must still approve parts of the plan in the coming months for the
pullout to begin on schedule next July.
The recent death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has also helped
revitalize peace prospects. Sharon has said he is ready to coordinate the
pullout ¡ª and perhaps resume full peace negotiations ¡ª with the new Palestinian
leadership. Sharon refused to negotiate with Arafat, accusing him of backing
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat called the Likud vote an
"internal Israeli matter" but said he hoped the new Israeli government will "go
in the direction of reviving the peace process by holding meaningful
negotiations with us."
In a new sign that plans are moving forward, Israeli officials said
Friday that Israel is prepared to turn over security responsibilities in
northern Gaza to Palestinian forces well ahead of the pullout.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move is meant as
a test of the new Palestinian leadership's ability to crack down on militants.
Palestinian militants in northern Gaza frequently launch rockets and attempt
other attacks on nearby Israeli towns. The attacks have prompted Israeli
reprisals into nearby Palestinian population centers.
The officials said if the test is successful, Israel could transfer
additional security responsibilities to Palestinian forces in the West Bank.
They said the proposed new security arrangements would be presented to the
Palestinians after the Jan. 9 presidential vote.
Israel has given tacit support to the interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud
Abbas, but does not want to openly embrace him in the run-up to the election.
Recent opinion polls show Abbas, the candidate of the ruling Fatah party,
locked in a close race with imprisoned Palestinian uprising leader Marwan
A team of Fatah members traveled Friday to meet with Barghouti, a party
member who is running as an independent. Barghouti, who is serving five life
terms in an Israeli prison for his role in deadly attacks, is under heavy
pressure within Fatah to exit the race.
Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib cautiously welcomed the new
Israeli proposal for northern Gaza, but said further withdrawals from
Palestinian areas would be needed to reach a permanent peace deal.
Arafat's death on Nov. 11 has opened new possibilities for a breakthrough in
Mideast peace talks. But a lull in fighting after his death ended in recent
On Thursday, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a car carrying
Palestinian militants in southern Gaza, wounding three men, Palestinian security
officials said. One was Jamal Abu Samhadana, one of the two Gaza commanders of
the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella group of militant factions.
The Israeli military said the attack targeted a militant responsible for
numerous terror attacks.